Alaska editorial: Special session was not a waste of money

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

This editorial appeared in Thursday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

News stories about the Legislature's special session have usually included a mention about the daily cost, estimated at about $30,000. That puts the final bill from the just-concluded 15-day overtime period at about $450,000.

Use of the numbers, while appropriate, nevertheless seems to imply that a squandering of cash was at hand each day. The message seems to be that the price is too high and that the legislators have only themselves to blame, for it is they who couldn't get their work done by the adjournment deadline for the 120-day regular session.

In reality, though, the cost to Alaska may have been much higher than that $30,000 a day had the Legislature not accomplished what it did in the extra session.

Because of the extra work, Alaska will now see, upon the governor's signature, changes to the state-run retirement systems, to the workers' compensation system, increased funding for operation of the schools, and a healthy capital budget. The items ended up in a special session since they became linked by politics: The Senate would do this but only if the House did that; the House would do that but only if the Senate did this. The regular session became a Gordian knot of competing ideas and pressures, from legislative factions and special interest groups and their lobbyists.

Linking unrelated pieces of legislation - as Senate Republicans did in saying they would refuse to fully fund a $70 million education increase until legislation was approved in response to the massive retirement system debt - wasn't a pretty thing to witness, and some of those involved said as much. But how else to bring about major change, such as converting the retirement system to a 401(k)-style program for new public employees, in the face of entrenched opposition?

The downside of the linkage tactic employed by the Senate upon the House, however, is that trust seems to have been a casualty between the Republican leadership of each chamber. That's the word from House Majority Leader John Coghill of North Pole, who said at the end of the session that the House would be looking to avoid a Senate trap when the Legislature reconvenes next year by being reluctant to send over any appropriations bill early. He said the two chambers will need to restore that trust.

Alaskans will now weigh whether the months of work down in Juneau did indeed produce something beneficial and whether the acrimony and lingering hard feelings among the various parties was worth it. The coming years should prove that it was.

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